Three homeless or formerly homeless people told their stories Thursday at a panel co-sponsored by the Office of Community Service and the National Coalition for the Homeless.
The event was part of a larger OCS effort to increase awareness during the National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. The speakers sought to break stereotypes about the homeless by educating the audience about the paths that led them to homelessness, their struggles on the street, and what can be done to help.
The first of the three speakers was Jesse Smith, a native Washingtonian. Smith received a degree in sociology from the University of the District of Columbia and had long held a job at a large telecommunications firm as a systems engineer. He spoke about his descent from a middle class life into homelessness.
“I went through a divorce,” he said, “I kind of flipped out, so to speak. I just couldn’t understand why we were going through all this.”
Upon the separation from his wife, Smith said he began “going through states of depression” and felt “stuck on hold” by mental illness.
He lost his job, attempted suicide and moved around in search of a new start. Smith credits a police officer, who gave him food, money and a train ticket home to his family, with having “brought [him] back to a sense of reality.”
The second speaker, Maurice King, said he has been homeless since April 2003. Born in North Carolina, King described his parents as “discouraging,” and as having raised him in a “negative atmosphere.”
In an effort to escape this, King earned a scholarship to college, got married and moved to Israel for 22 years. Upon discovering his son was diagnosed with Asperger’s disease, the family returned to North Carolina for the son’s treatment.
After experiencing financial problems and a divorce, King said he found himself “left swamped with bills;” he had no job and a medical condition.
The third speaker, Jennifer McLaughlin, originally from Baltimore, has lived in numerous shelters and on the streets, worked as a cook, and recently published a poem entitled “The Financial Crisis.”
McLaughlin, a mother of two, earns a minimal income selling the newspaper “Street Sense,” a publication written by and about the homeless.
“Street Sense is one of the best resources in the city,” she said in regard to its role in the life of a homeless individual.
Audience members asked about what could have prevented each speaker’s descent into homelessness, how the homeless population can become better aware of services available to them and what a typical day in the lives of each speaker looks like.
The speakers said that having friends who looked out for them would have been the best prevention.
Smith said he could have avoided being homeless “[if] anybody who knew me recognized that I was going through some sort of mental trauma.”
All three speakers praised Street Sense for educating the homeless about what services they can access in the city.
The three speakers said they lead very different lives these days. Smith said he works part time and spends the rest of his time volunteering.
“I can dedicate my time and efforts to things like this. And I love it. I’m telling you, there is nothing in the world like doing something for your fellow man,” Smith said.
King said he has been working in his shelter’s computer lab, helping fellow residents write resumes and fill out online applications. McLaughlin and her two children have been staying in a family shelter and she spends her time working for Street Sense and seeking additional employment.
Sophomore Anita Elahi, an international affairs major, called the event “very real.”
“I think it’s the best event that I’ve been to probably my whole time at GW just because it was very real. You really got to hear their stories, and it really hits you directly.”
Meera Sriram, also a sophomore, said she enjoyed the panel’s presentation.
“It’s great to hear the stories first-hand and great to hear about these kind of organizations that we can get involved with,” she said. “Hopefully, I’d like to do some more volunteer work in the future.”